Graduate recruitment: the end of the milk round?

Are graduate recruitment fairs, commonly known as the 'milk round' facing a similar demise to their namesake?
Are graduate recruitment fairs, commonly known as the "milk round", facing a similar demise to their namesake?

Graduate recruitment has, once again, become competitive as employers boost their hiring numbers and search for the best talent. Jo Faragher examines whether or not the old approaches to attraction still work.

While attending the annual university careers fairs – or the “milk round” as it is commonly known – Carol White, head of recruitment at engineering and professional services consulting firm WSP, began to notice a couple of things. First, the number of final-year undergraduates looking to apply for a role had decreased, and second, her company’s competitors were increasingly nowhere to be seen.

“We had more younger undergraduates looking for work placements rather than permanent roles, and we wondered what our competitors were doing,” says White.

This year, WSP will recruit around 150 graduates, many of them with specialist engineering degrees, so it needs to be able to attract quality talent.

Having discovered that its traditional route to market for graduates was becoming less effective, the company now does more of its candidate attraction through mobiles and tablets. It also uses targeted advertising on LinkedIn and engages with students on campus in different ways, such as sponsoring competitions or inviting students to “lunch and learn” sessions.

WSP is not the only graduate employer to review how it reaches out to potential candidates. As numbers begin to pick up again after the recession, many organisations are broadening and innovating how they interact with graduates.

What do graduates want from an employer?

Good work-life balance
Students today do not expect to leave work and totally unplug. They do expect to integrate their jobs into their lives and vice versa. That can mean working remotely when possible, taking time for personal projects and staying connected to friends during office hours.

Relevant and competitive reward
Candidates will always be driven by compensation, but this generation is more attuned to non-traditional job benefits such as game rooms, health clubs, casual dress, barbecues and peer-nominated awards.

Strong career path
Students today are not looking to qualify for a pension plan. They may not even expect to be with you for five years. What they are looking for is a launch pad.

Challenging work
Students welcome a challenge as a chance to prove themselves. Along the way, they thrive on timely feedback, mentoring and one-on-one attention to make the most of every learning experience.

Pride in where they work
Today’s students are guided by a social conscience and want to work for organisations that make a positive contribution to society. They are also sceptical consumers and can sniff out corporate spin and insincerity.

Pierre Berlin, senior director, LinkedIn Talent Solutions EMEA

New approach

“The traditional milk round is not the most effective way to attract great young talent into the business any more, so [companies are] completely changing their approach to recruiting graduates,” says Sarah Shields, general manager and executive director at Dell UK.

Shields says she was “astounded” by the way Dell had to change the way it communicated with its millennial generation graduates, and the company has focused on attracting, onboarding and developing its new recruits differently as a result.

Earlier this year, it launched its GenNext UK programme, which provides graduates with the opportunity to network with more senior individuals in the company, gives them access to mentors, and develops their confidence.

There are fun activities such as quizzes, but also more serious sessions such as helping graduates create an “elevator pitch” so that they can sell themselves to managers in the organisation, and developing face-to-face networking skills for a generation glued to smartphones and email.

“If you have a discussion with them on career development, you have to be explicit with them that this is what it is. You say, ‘I won’t tell you what to do, you need to own it’. We need to teach them empowerment,” explains Shields.

Working on truly integrating graduates into the workforce, rather than treating them as a separate entity (“the noisy team in the corner”), reaps rewards in the long term, she adds, because they stay longer, they are more engaged and they see the relevance of their work.

Deeper engagement

But when it comes to attracting graduates, what is the most appropriate approach if university careers fairs no longer bear fruit? White believes it is not a case of ditching fairs altogether at WSP, but rather focusing on “deeper campus engagement” with its graduate activities.

Law firm Reed Smith has also taken this route. In recent years, it has asked graduates to prepare a video on the topic of “law firm of the future” and run a competition to produce the best “mugshot” of a mug in an interesting place.

Head of graduate recruitment Lucy Crittenden says: “As a candidate it can be confusing as law firms’ websites can be difficult to tell apart, training contracts tend to be similar – you can only really get a flavour of the working culture by meeting people.

“At student fairs, we try to do something that makes some noise and gets people to come and talk to us,” she adds. On top of this the firm also runs skills development sessions on topics such as commercial awareness, and hosts mock legal exercises in its own offices.

One particular aspect of Reed Smith’s campaign that appealed to graduates was the chance to engage with social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. And while this is nothing new in the world of recruitment, employers must innovate more than ever to stand out in a crowded graduate market.

Social generation

Through social media, the graduate generation want to know as much as possible about their future employer, and are prepared to go to some lengths to find out the good, the bad and the ugly about where they will be working.

We had more, younger undergraduates looking for work placements rather than permanent roles” – Carol White, WSP

For employers, effective engagement with graduates will depend on “lifting the lid” on company culture, says David Rudick, VP International Markets at job board platform Indeed. “Heavily influenced by social media and peer reviews, graduate jobseekers also expect a similar level of transparency from their future employers. If companies are to engage with young jobseekers, they will need to be open about what it’s like to work there,” he says.

Graduates will also be mindful of employers’ records on issues such as inclusion and social responsibility, adds Rudick: “Employers will need to provide real insight on other important criteria such as management, work-life balance and company culture, if they are to draw in the best graduate talent.”

Debi Hayes is deputy provost at Greenwich School of Marketing, and has worked with a number of universities on widening access. At her institution, 85% of students are from black minority and ethnic backgrounds, and 75% are over the age of 25.

She points to Alan Milburn’s Elite Britain report of 2014, which found that 75% of senior judges and 59% of the Cabinet hold degrees from elite universities, compared with just 1% of the population as a whole. Hayes believes employers too often “marginalise” older graduates or those who have not attended one of their preferred universities, and they are missing out on talent as a result.

“I can understand why some employers want to simplify the recruitment process by only recruiting from certain universities, or asking for a certain number of UCAS points, but that just maintains the status quo,” she says. “I think there is a moral imperative for employers to recruit from the widest pool.”

Recruiting from the widest pool is not just a moral issue either, it is one of making sure the company has enough resource in place to support its future growth plans. This has certainly been the case for building society Nationwide, which this year tripled the number of graduates it recruited to around 100.

According to Kate Beasant, resourcing partner for emerging talent, one of the challenges has been that while the Nationwide consumer brand is strong, it is not as well known among the student population.

“We wanted to convey our brand to students by interacting on a personal level,” she explains. To do this, it engaged its existing graduate cohort to project manage and get involved in its university liaison, attending careers fairs and speaking to candidates about what working life is like at the company.

Not only has this generated an increase in applicants (and a higher conversion rate for those who go on to the assessment centre), but it has helped build the skills and engagement of existing early careers professionals. Graduate Esther Spiering, who works with Nationwide’s customer experience team, says it “taught me about forward planning and stakeholder engagement” through arranging the process and spending time with students.

Finally, with all this in place, it is important to ensure that the graduates you have worked so hard to attract are not made to jump through technological hoops just to enter the hiring process. “Traditional” recruitment steps such as filling out long forms or hosting multiple interviews could turn off this tech-savvy generation, argues Neal Bruce, senior vice president of product strategy, at Lumesse.

“Businesses that do not modernise their recruitment strategy will optimise their experience for the desperate candidates who may move mountains to get the job, but are not necessarily the best of the bunch,” he says.

With many commentators suggesting that 2015 will be the year we return to a candidate-driven market, it is time to get innovative with graduate recruitment.

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